How to Complain - A Comprehensive Guide

From Consumer Wiki

How to complain

With thanks to Barracad

I have had years of experience of dealing with customer complaints, and so I have put this guide here to help you to write an effective complaint letter which will get you the results you want quickly.

This writing approach is effective for private consumers who need to write letters of complaint that produce positive outcomes. Effective complaints letters should be: concise, authoritative, factual, constructive, and friendly. Imagine you are receiving a customer's letter of complaint. What type of letter would encourage you to respond positively and helpfully to the complaint?

Good complaints letters have these features:

  • Concise letters can be understood quickly.
  • Authoritative letters - letters that are well written and professionally presented - have more credibility and are taken seriously.
  • Factual letters enable the reader to see immediately the relevant details, dates, requirements, etc., and to justify action to resolve the complaint.
  • Constructive letters - with positive statements, suggesting positive actions - encourage action and quicker decisions.
  • Friendly letters - with a considerate, cooperative and complimentary tone - are prioritised because the reader warms to the writer and wants to help.

These complaints methods are based on cooperation, relationships, constructive problem-solving, and are therefore transferable to phone and face-to-face complaints.

Write concise letters

We all receive too many communications these days, especially letters. People in complaints departments receive more letters than most, and cannot read every letter fully. The only letters that are read fully are the most concise, clear, compact letters. Letters that ramble or are vague will not be read properly. So it's simple - to be acted upon, first your letter must be read. To be read your letter must be concise. A concise letter of complaint must make its main point in less than five seconds. The complaint letter may subsequently take a few more seconds to explain the situation, but first the main point must be understood in a few seconds.

Structuring the letter is important. Think in terms of the acronym AIDA:

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

This is the fundamental process of persuasion. It's been used by the selling profession for fifty years or more. It applies to letters of complaints too, which after all, are letters of persuasion. The complaint letter attempts to persuade the reader to take action.

Structure your letter so that you include a heading - which identifies the issue and name of product, service, person, location, with code or reference number if applicable.

Then state the simple facts, with relevant dates and details.

Next state what you'd like to happen - a positive request for the reader to react to.

Include also, (as a sign-off point is usually best), something complimentary about the company and/or its products, service, or people. For example:

I've long been a user of your products/services and up until now have always regarded you as an excellent supplier/company. I have every faith therefore that you will do what you can to rectify this situation.

Even if you are very angry, it's always important to make a positive, complimentary comment. It will make the reader and the organization more inclined to 'want' to help you. More about this below.

If the situation is very complex with a lot of history, it's a good idea to keep the letter itself very short and concise, and then append or attach the details, in whatever format is appropriate (photocopies, written notes, explanation, etc). This enables the reader of the letter to understand the main point of the complaint, and then to process it, without having to read twenty pages of history and detail.

The main point is, do not bury your main points in a long letter about the problem. Make your main points first in a short letter, and attach the details.

Authoritative complaints letters have credibility and carry more weight

An authoritative letter is especially important for serious complaints or one with significant financial implications.

What makes a letter authoritative?

Professional presentation, good grammar and spelling, firmness and clarity. Using sophisticated words (providing they are used correctly) - the language of a broadsheet newspaper rather than a tabloid - can also help to give your letter a more authoritative impression. What your letter looks like, its presentation, language and tone, can all help to establish your credibility - that you can be trusted and believed, that you know your facts, and that you probably have a point.

So think about your letter layout - use a letterhead preferably - ensure the name and address details of the addressee are correct, include the date, keep it tidy, well-spaced, and print your name under your signature.

If you copy the letter to anyone show that this has been done (normally by using the abbreviation 'c.c.' with the names of copy letter recipients and their organisations if appropriate, beneath the signature.) If you attach other pages of details or photocopies, or enclose anything else such as packaging, state so on the letter (normally by using the abbreviation 'enc.' the foot of the page).

When people read letters, rightly or wrongly they form an impression about the writer, which can affect response and attitude. Writing a letter that creates an authoritative impression is therefore helpful.

Complaints letters must include all the facts

In the company concerned, you need someone at some stage to decide a course of action in response to your letter, that will resolve your complaint. For any complaint of reasonable significance, the solution will normally involve someone committing organisational resources or cost. Where people commit resources or costs there needs to be proper accountability and justification. This is generally because organizations of all sorts are geared to providing a return on investment. Resolving your complaint will involve a cost or 'investment' of some sort, however small, which needs justifying. If there's insufficient justification, the investment needed to solve the problem cannot be committed.

So ensure you provide the relevant facts, dates, names, and details, clearly. Make sure you include all the necessary facts that will justify why your complaint should resolved (according to your suggestion assuming you make one).

But be brief and concise. Not chapter and verse. Just the key facts, especially dates and reference numbers.

For example:

The above item was delivered to XYZ address on 00/00/00 date and developed ABC fault on 00/00/00

Constructive letters and suggestions make complaints easier to resolve

Accentuate the positive wherever possible. This means presenting things in a positive light. Dealing with a whole load of negative statements is not easy for anyone, especially customer service staff, who'll be dealing with mostly negative and critical communication all day. Be different by being positive and constructive. State the facts and then suggest what needs to be done to resolve matters. If the situation is complex, suggest that you'll be as flexible as you can in helping to arrive at a positive outcome. Say that you'd like to find a way forward, rather than terminate the relationship. If you tell them that you're taking your business elsewhere, and that you're never using them again, etc., then there's little incentive for them to look for a good outcome. If you give a very negative, final, 'unsavable' impression, they'll treat you accordingly. Suppliers of all sorts work harder for people who stay loyal and are prepared to work through difficulties, rather than jump ship whenever there's a problem. Many suppliers and companies actually welcome complaints as opportunities to improve (which they should do) - if yours does, or can be persuaded to take this view, it's very well worth sticking with them and helping them to find a solution. So it helps to be seen as a positive and constructive customer rather than a negative, critical one. It helps for your complaint to be seen as an opportunity to improve things, rather than an arena for confrontation and divorce.

Write letters with a friendly and complimentary tone

It may be surprising to some, but threatening people generally does not produce good results.

This applies whether you are writing, phoning or meeting face-to-face.

A friendly complimentary approach encourages the other person to reciprocate - they'll want to return your faith, build the relationship, and keep you as a loyal customer or user of their products or services. People like helping nice friendly people. People do not find it easy to help nasty people who attack them.

This is perhaps the most important rule of all when complaining. Be kind to people and they will be kind to you. Ask for their help - it's really so simple - and they will want to help you.

Contrast a friendly complimentary complaint letter with a complaint letter full of anger and negativity: readers of angry bitter letters are not naturally inclined to want to help - they are more likely to retreat, make excuses, defend, or worse still to respond aggressively or confrontationally. It's human nature.

Also remember that the person reading the letter is just like you - they just want to do a good job, be happy, to get through the day without being upset. What earthly benefit will you get by upsetting them? Be nice to people. Respect their worth and motives. Don't transfer your frustration to them personally - they've not done anything to upset you. They are there to help. The person reading the letter is your best ally - keep them on your side and they will do everything they can to resolve the problem - it's their job.

Try to see things from their point of view. Take the trouble to find out how they work and what the root causes of the problems might be.

This friendly approach is essential as well if you cannot resist the urge to pick up the phone and complain. Remember that the person at the other end is only trying to do their job, and that they can only work within the policy that has been issued to them. Don't take it out on them - it's not their fault.

In fact, complaints are best and quickest resolved if you take the view that it's nobody's fault. Attaching blame causes defensiveness - the barriers go up and conflict develops.

Take an objective view - it's happened, for whatever reason; it can't be undone, now let's find out how it can best be resolved. Try to take a cooperative, understanding, objective tone. Not confrontational; instead you and them both looking at the problem from the same side.

If you use phrases like - "I realise that mistakes happen..."; "I'm not blaming anyone...."; "I'm sure this is a rare problem...", your letter (or phone call) will be seen as friendly, non-threatening, and non-confrontational. This relaxes the person at the other end, and makes them more inclined to help you, because you are obviously friendly and reasonable.

The use of humour often works wonders if your letter is to a senior person. Humour dissipates conflict, and immediately attracts attention because it's different. A bit of humour in a complaint letter also creates a friendly, intelligent and cooperative impression. Senior people dealing with complaints tend to react on a personal level, rather than a procedural level, as with customer services departments. If you brighten someone's day by raising a smile there's a good chance that your letter will be given favourable treatment.

Complain by phone - or write a letter of complaint?

Obviously if a situation needs resolving urgently you must phone, but that's different to complaining. When something goes wrong the the temptation is often to get on the phone straight away, and give someone 'a piece of your mind' about whatever has disappointed or annoyed you, but phoning to complain in this way is rarely a good idea. This is because:

  • Heat of the moment' complaints almost always produce confrontation, emotion, and misunderstanding, which are not conducive to the cooperation necessary for good solutions and outcomes.
  • For companies to handle complaints properly they need to be able to deal with facts and written records. Written details are essential to their complaints processing, and a letter is a far more reliable way of communicating these things than a verbal phone exchange.
  • You will need your own record of the complaint to establish accountability, responsibility, that you have actually complained, when you complained, and to whom. Telephone conversations do not automatically create a record. With a phone complaint there is nothing for you to refer back to; no copies can be produced when and if you need to follow up the complaint.
  • A letter gives you the chance to present your case in the best possible way. Telephone conversations can quickly get out of control.
  • Writing a letter helps you to calm down and do things properly. Calling people immediately on the phone often fuels your emotions, especially if the person at the other end isn't good at handling you. When you lose control of your emotions you lose control of the situation, your credibility, clarity, cooperation, goodwill and objectivity; all of which you need if you want to achieve the best possible outcome.
  • For very serious matters you should be using recorded or registered post, which effectively guarantees that your letter reaches the recipient. There is of course no equivalent by telephone.
  • If you do need to phone the company in relation to any aspect of your claim, even if just to chase progress, always ensure you record the conversation. As it is for your own personal use, this is perfectly legal and you do not need to advise the other person that you are recording the call.

Where should you send letters of complaints?

If the company has a customer services department at their head office this is the first place to start. The department will be geared up to dealing with complaints letters, and your complaint should be processed quickly with the others they'll receive because that's the job of a customer services department. This is especially the case for large organisations. Sending initial complaints letters to the Managing Director or the Chairman will only be referred by their PA staff to the customer services department anyway, with the result of immediately alienating the customer services staff, because you've 'gone over their heads'.

The trick of sending a copy letter to the Chairman - and showing this on the letter to the customer services department - is likely to have the same effect. Keep your powder dry until you need it.

You can generally find the address of the customer services department on (where appropriate) product packaging, invoices, websites, and other advertising and communications materials produced by the company concerned. Local branches, if applicable, will also have the details.

If your complaint is one which has not been satisfactorily resolved by the normal customer services or complaints department, then you should refer the matter upwards, and ultimately, when you've run out of patience, to the top - the company Chairman or Managing Director.

The higher the level of the person you are writing to, the more need to make your letter clear, concise, authoritative, etc. When referring complaints upwards always attach copies of previous correspondence.

If departmental managers and functional directors fail to give you satisfaction, get the top person's name and address from the customer services department. If this is not possible, call the organization's head office and ask for the Chairman's PA. Very large organizations will often have a whole team that looks after the Chairman's correspondence, so don't worry if you can't speak to the PA her/himself - all you need at this stage is the name and address of the person at the top. You don't need to give a reason for writing, and you certainly don't need to go into detail about the complaint itself because the person you'll be speaking with won't be responsible for dealing with it. Just say: "I'm writing to the Chairman - would you give me the name and address please?" And that's all you say. You could be the private secretary for the Queen for all they know. Only the most clandestine company will refuse to give the details you need (in which case forget about complaining and find another supplier).

Where to complain if the person at the top fails to satisfy your complaint

If you have exhausted all avenues of complaint at the company itself, and you are determined not to let matters go, you must then find the appropriate higher authority or regulatory body.

However, first sit down and think hard about whether your complaint and expectations are realistic. If you are too emotional about things to be objective, ask a friend or colleague for their interpretation. If you decide that you truly are getting a raw deal, next think seriously about whether to forget it - to take the FIDO approach (forget it and drive on) - for the sake of your own peace of mind. Some battles just aren't worth the fight. Could the energy you'd use in pursuing the complaint be better used to resolving the situation in a different way? Plenty of people spend lots of time and money pursuing a complaint, which they win in the end, but which costs them too dearly along the way. If the personal and emotional cost is likely to be too great, be philosophical about it; FIDO.

Having said all that, if your complaint does warrant a personal crusade, and some things are certainly worth fighting for, very many companies are subject to a higher authority, to which you can refer your complaint.

Public services organisations - schools, councils, etc - will be part of a local government and ultimately central government hierarchy. In these structures, regional and central offices should have customer services departments to which you can refer your complaints about the local organisation that's disappointed you.

Utilities and other major service organisations - for example in the energy, communications, water, transport sectors - generally have regulatory bodies which are responsible for handling unresolved complaints about the providers that they oversee. At this stage you will need clear records of everything that's happened.

Unresolved complaints about companies that are part of a larger group can be referred to the group or parent company head office. Some are more helpful than others, but generally group and parent companies are concerned if their subsidiaries are not looking after dissatisfied customers properly.

Generally look for the next level up - the regulatory body, the central office, the parent company - the organisation that owns, controls or oversees the company with which you are dissatisfied.

General Complaint Template

Name and address (eg., for the Customer Services Manager)


Dear Sir or Madam (or name)

Heading with relevant reference numbers

(Optional, especially if writing to a named person) ask for the person's help, eg "I'd really appreciate your help with this."

State facts of situation, including dates, names, reference numbers, but keep this very concise and brief (append details, history, photocopies if applicable, for example if the situation is very complex and has a long history).

State your suggested solution. If the situation and solution is complex, state also that you'll be as flexible as you can to come to an agreed way forward.

(Optional, and normally worth including) state some positive things about your normal experience with the organization concerned, for example: that you've no wish to go elsewhere and hope that a solution can be found; compliment any of their people who have given good service; compliment their products and say that normally you are very happy with things.

State that you look forward to hearing from them soon and that you appreciate their help.

Yours faithfully (if not sent to a named person) or sincerely (if sent to a named person)

Your signature

Your printed name (and title/position if applicable)

c.c. (plus names and organisations, if copying the letter to anyone)

enc. (if enclosing something, such as packaging or attachments)

Poor Work - Complaint Template


Your address

Company’s address

Dear ___________

{Insert job and date}

I am writing to complain about the poor standard of workmanship I received in relation to the above job. As evidence of this I enclose a list of the problems. The work was clearly not carried out with reasonable care and skill (as required by section 13 Supply of Goods and Services Act) and, as such, amounts to a breach of contract.

Unless and until, these matters are rectified, I shall be withholding the balance of the contract price. Furthermore, if you do not put matters right within two weeks (or such other period as we may agree) I shall get another contractor to do it.

I will obtain a few quotations from reputable contractors and if the cost of the cheapest exceeds the balance of the contract price, I shall claim the extra from you by way of damages.

I will also report the matter to the ___________Association, of which I note you are a member.

I await hearing from you.


Cancelling an order (Cooling off period) - Template


Your address

Company’s address

Dear ___________

{Date/Nature of Order}

I am writing to cancel the above order which I placed with you {include appropriate means of distance communication e.g. over the telephone}.

As the contract was made at a distance, it is governed by the Distance Selling Regulations 2000. Under these regulations I have a cancellation period of seven working days from receipt of the goods.

The goods were delivered to my home yesterday, but when I unpacked them I realised that they were not appropriate for my needs. This is why I am cancelling the contract. Consequently, please return the deposit I paid, and arrange to collect the goods at your earliest convenience.

Unless and until I receive written notice from you about collection and in any event, a refund of my deposit I will keep the contract goods. I will, of course, take reasonable care of them pending collection.

Under the Distance Selling Regulations, notice of cancellation which is posted is deemed effective on the date of posting. I will be posting this letter today, so please treat cancellation as effective from today’s date.

I await hearing from you.


Witholding Payment (if paid by Credit Card) - Template

Your address


Company’s address

Dear Sir

{Insert Type of Contract and Date}

I am writing to notify you of my intention to withhold payment of £____ from the current balance on my account.

On {date} I entered into a contract with ________ for the ________ of ________ The contract price was £____ , which I paid using my ________ Card. Please see enclosed copy of the statement of this account clearly showing this transaction.

{Explain nature of problem (eg defective service/goods)}.

{Explain why matter has not been resolved by the supplier (eg not acknowledging complaint or gone out of business)}.

As the purchase price of the goods/service was over £100, you, as the card issuer, are liable to the same extent as the supplier (section 75 of the Consumer Credit Act). Consequently, as ________ {name of supplier} has not satisfied my claim for breach of contract, I am legally entitled to withhold payments representing the amount of my claim, and you can not charge interest on this amount.

Please find enclosed photocopies of three quotations I have obtained as to the cost of putting matters right. You will see that £____ is the amount of the cheapest.

Please acknowledge receipt of this letter, and send confirmation of your agreement of my witholding £___ from my payment, upon which amount you will not charge interest, until the matter is resolved with the supplier.

Yours faithfully

Holiday Complaint Letter Template

Date Your address

Company’s address

Dear ___________

{Location and Dates of Holiday}

Name in which booking was made

Hotel Name


Departure Date

Booking Reference Number

I am writing to complain about the above holiday from which I have just returned with my family. It was most disappointing.

I enclose a list of our complaints. The main one was the fact that the (accommodation/facilities) was/were not ___________ as described in the brochure (see enclosed photocopy extract from the brochure). Instead the (accommodation/facilities) was/were ________________

I immediately contacted your representative at the resort, but he/she was unable to resolve the matter. He/she apologised and told me to complain when I got home.

As our holiday was a package, the Package Travel Regulations 1992 apply to it. Under these regulations you are liable to compensate us for the problems we encountered and for the distress and disappointment we suffered as a result.

If this matter cannot be resolved amicably, I shall send a copy of this letter and enclosures to ABTA (of which I note you are a member). (Also, if, as I suspect, the misdescription in the brochure was made ‘knowingly’ or ‘recklessly’ by you, you will have committed a criminal offence under the Trade Descriptions Act. Accordingly, I will report it to the trading standards department of my local authority for investigation).

I await hearing from you.


howtocomplain has good general information on all types of consumer complaints.

All the various sections are freely available, but you must register (with your name, address and phone no.) to use the facility which enables you to submit, escalate and resolve complaints online.

This service is FREE and independent, empowering you to get results: How often have you intended to complain about something but never got around to it? Well now you can easily and effectively:

• Learn about your rights and where to get advice and help.

• Submit, escalate and resolve complaints online.

• Find out how to complain about any issue.

Top tips on complaining: General tips and reminders to help you get the right result

Complaint Letter Templates: Write your own letter with help

Complaints Procedures: For 140 different sectors

Signposts: How to complain about 'day-to-day events' or 'life events'

Complaints Wizard: Follow the easy to answer questions.

Legal Section: Legal tips and reminders.

Know Your Rights: Leaflets and information about your rights.